Bi-culturalism- Am I More or less Ethiopian?

Biculturals take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures. They adapt their attitudes, behaviors, and values to these cultures and they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved (see here).

It has long been known that there are many advantages to being bicultural such as having a greater number of social networks, being aware of cultural differences, taking part in the life of two or more cultures, being an intermediary between cultures, and so on. Recent research shows that biculturals are also characterized by greater creativity and professional success.

- Advantages of Being Bicultural by Francois Grosiean, Ph.D.   http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual/201304/advantages-being-bicultural

As an Ethiopian American I find that the way I express my culture is a sort of a fusion between American culture and Ethiopian culture.  I recently discovered the term bicultural perfectly describes my cultural experience.  Biculturalism goes beyond blingualism.  Blingual is speaking two languages, but biculturals live in both worlds culturally.

I grew up in the United States, however in my home amongst family it was like I was in Ethiopia.  I understand and feel the culture.  I speak the language, I love the food.  I take the values of my culture out into the world with me.  On the same note, I live in America.   American culture is a part of me, I speak the language, I eat the food, I listen to the music, I subscribe to many American values.  At times these two worlds collide. I find myself living somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out where I actually belong.  Sometimes my connection to either culture is challenged.  Am I “Ethiopian enough” or “American enough”.  My values are challenged when I claim to follow certain Ethiopian customs and simultaneously follow American customs.  I fuse the two together, forming my bicultural world.

People that try to look down on Ethiopians born in America, yet do everything in their power to live the American dream amaze me.

True story: One day I was sitting amongst a group of acquaintances, all born in Ethiopia.  I was the only American born out of the bunch.  One of the women said “Thank God I wasn’t Born in America” and made a very nasty face along with the comment.  I sat there and looked at her, and said “O you were born in Ethiopia?” She said “Yes, Thank God Im not one of these kids born here.”  I couldn’t bite my tongue that day.  This woman speaks English without an accent, clearly attended high school and college in the U.S. and continues to live her life in the U.S. as an adult.  I responded to her in Amharic, to make my point even clearer: “Ena eze ager teweleja min honkon? Ye honkoot neger alle? Anche eze eye norsh, mindeno ye me leyen?” translation “I was born in America, what happened to me? Is there something wrong with me?  What makes us different , you growing up and living here me being born here?”  She was shocked, and speechless.  I put my case to rest and she apologetically said, oh nothing is wrong with you, you are different.   My question to you my readers is this: What makes us different, if I embrace my culture just as much as those born in Ethiopia what makes me different?  I say, nothing but mere coincidence of birth.  Besides, Ethiopians in Ethiopia even have disagreement about which tribe is truly “Ethiopian”.

I will confess, I do understand what she meant.  She was having a prideful moment in Being Ethiopian.  However, she unknowingly offended and attacked my pride in being Ethiopian.  By inflating her own culture, she attacked mine.  I challenge you all to do this, one is really not better than the other.  I feel blessed to be born in America.  However, if I were born in Ethiopia I would feel just as blessed.  It is not up to us to assign judgment, rather encourage any opportunity to exposure or embracing cultural background and heritage..  Exposure is the key to biculturalism, then the individual can choose which cultural norms suit him or her best and live life aCultural Identity Stagesccordingly.

Coming full circle: The article I quoted above, I suggest you all read, says that people that have the opportunity to participate in multiple cultures benefit from larger social networks, greater professional awareness. Biculturalism should in fact be embraced.  In whichever form it is: whether the Ethiopian born who has migrated to America, or the American born embracing her Ethiopian roots. Biculturalism benefits us all.  If I were to run a business, I prescribe to both American and Ethiopian culture: that widens my base of customers or clients.  I can easily identify with whomever walks into my door, because I have a wider understanding of two different worlds.  It also makes it easier to work with people outside of my own cultural group because there is a level of understanding that comes with having lived and grown up in a bicultural world.

My advice: Parents do not be afraid to expose your children to your culture, let them embrace , love it and understand it.  In the long run you are helping them more than you could ever imagine.

Those are just my thoughts, Please feel free to comment.

Are we mentally conolized?

mental colonizationI recently engaged in a discussion about Ethiopians being mentally colonized.  Ethiopia has never been colonized by any European nation.  Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians, however Italy was never successful in colonizing Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is proud to be the only African nation to never be colonized.  But has Ethiopia been psychologically/ mentally colonized?

Consider this:  Whenever a family member visits Ethiopia, he or she packs a luggage (shanta) full of American goods to take to Ethiopia for family and friends that live there.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Of course it is customary to take a gift or two to someone when you visit.  However, what is the need for all the shoes, clothes, lotions, and other products that are being sent back home?  There are industries and local businesses that provide many of these same products within Ethiopia.  Purchasing from the businesses within the country would benefit the economy, and our family members would probably get a better product.  However, if it isn’t sent from America, there is a presumption that it is not “good.”

Ethiopia’s economy is suffering greatly.  Food products made within the country are exported with great demand because we in America want all of our spices to come directly from the motherland.  We crave to maintain our authenticity in the western world.  However, on the flip side, it seems as though our brothers and sisters back home are craving to rid themselves from such authenticity by longing for western products searching for things that reflect “modernism” and westernization.  I think this is an interesting premise to try and understand.  It goes with the old saying “the grass is greener on the other side”; but honestly is it really greener?

How do we learn to love ourselves, and not become like the people of another country? Is it considered mental colonization when we desire to take on the appearance, dress, style and language of a foreign nation.  Has the western world culturally colonized Ethiopia, although it hasn’t physically colonized Ethiopia?  I would argue the answer to that is Yes.  Ethiopia has modernized, developed and made great advances- but at what expense? Have we lost sight of our culture.  Does modernization mean that we must let go of our cultural roots or is there a way to maintain both? I think that there is.  However, I don’t know how exactly the proper balance can be reached.

I don’t know all the answers, however I look forward to the discussion that will come from this post.  Feel free to post your comments, and I intend on doing a follow up post after doing some further research and analysis on the issue.

 

Lebeshe endiy berdesh “wear something so you don’t get cold”

I have great memories of my grandmother.  I am blessed to have spent some quality time with her during her last few years of life.  She is an amazing person who fascinates me with her endless wit, funny stories and undying love of family.  She was always giving advice and using Ethiopian sayings to give life lessons.  For example, “ye chekolech afessa lekemech” which means “one who rushes, spills everything and has to pick it back up”.  My sister and I swear she understood English, although she never actually spoke it.  We came to this conclusion because on several occasions she heard us having a discussion and she interjected in Amharic.  Her interjection was precise and directly connected to the discussion at hand.  And often times she would settle whatever debate was happening.

My grandmother, whom I called emameya, did not like it when we wore shorts, tanktops, or short dresses.  Whenever she saw me she would say “lijay, abatesh cherk megzat alchalem” meaning: “my child, your father couldn’t buy material for your clothes.”  She would also say “lebeshe, endiy berdesh” meaning “wear something so you don’t get cold.”  She would take her gabe (her Ethiopian cotton blanket) and put it on me to cover me up and keep me warm.  However, it was summer time, so then I was just hot.  I would laugh and tell her it is hot outside so that’s why I’m wearing this, she would then explain why it didn’t matter and tell me about how I need to cover up.  I always laughed and said “ishe emameya”.  And she would respond with “hmm”.  Its almost as though she knew I wasn’t going to really listen to her.  After all, we were in America, shorts were common and acceptable.

I miss her dearly.  Her charm and wit will be engraved in my memory forever.  Her advice , strict manner and high expectations help shape me into who I am today.  Her experiences and her unbelievable strength amaze and inspire me.  She experienced so much in her life time.  Married at a very young age.  The loss of a child during the Derg civil war.  12 children and 28 grand and great grand children.  She is the cornerstone of our family.  In good times and bad times we surrounded ourselves around her.  Even in her deteriorating health she seemed to have strength and wisdom that was unimaginable.  I saw her in some of her most vulnerable times, but even then she was more concerned about our well being than her own.

I can only hope to have a fraction of her strength, and with that I know this Ethiopian American Girl will be able to get through anything.

Feel free to share your stories of your Abesha Grandmother here!

 

What does it mean to be an Ethiopian American to you?

I would like to get some feedback from you (my readers) about what it means to be Ethiopian American.  I will give my answer here, and then as you all post and engage in the conversation you can be featured on this page as well.question-mark

I will start with my answer:

To me, being an Ethiopian American means that I teeter the line between two cultures.  I adjust automatically between two different worlds.  Sometimes I speak in Amharic without realizing I am speaking in Amharic.  Other times I express myself best in English.  Depending on the situation I quickly adjust to the environment and the appropriate cultural norms.  You would think that so much back and forth between to cultures and the wearing of different masks would cause me to have an internal conflict.  However, it has not.  In fact, I feel more confident than one may think.  I feel comfortable in any environment among anyone.  I feel adequate in my ability to express myself in either the Ethiopian language (Amharic) or English. I feel well adjusted to my ever changing environment.  I don’t feel awkward in various cultural groups.  Additionally, I have learned that asking when you don’t understand a cultural norm or terminology is actually ok to do.  I ask for translations for phrases in both English and in Amharic. Because I grew up in a home of Amharic speakers I am actually unfamiliar with certain American sayings.  Also, because I grew up in America certain sayings in Amharic are also unfamiliar to me.  Therefore, I find myself asking “what does that mean?” much more frequently than one may think.

Being Ethiopian American is not just about speaking the language and eating the food.  I feel like it is a badge of honor that I wear for the world to see.  From my physical features that identify me as clearly Ethiopian to the strong history of being Ethiopian.  I am also just as proud to be an American.  The strong history of the struggles for equality, freedom and tolerance are things I embrace.  I recognize that without the struggles of the civil rights movement I would not enjoy the freedoms I have today.  And for that I am proud to be an American.

I feel a strong connection to both American and Ethiopian culture.  I know some Ethiopian Americans feel differently.  Some feel more connected to American culture while others more connected to Ethiopian and even others feel no connection to either.  I am curious to find out what different people feel, what it means to them, and maybe through discussion we can find out why it is that we feel the connections and cultural ties that we do.  I have a hypothesis that it is related to the way we are raised, the towns we grow up in, and the values our families instill in us.  However, even those born and raised in similar communities with similar families turn out completely different.  Share your opinions here: What does it mean to be Ethiopian American to you?

SoleRebels

I recently had the opportunity to meet an amazing Ethiopian woman: Bethlehem Alemu.  She is the founder of SoleRebels.  SoleRebels is a company which makes shoes from recycled rubber from tires.  Her whole concept is “making something from nothing”.  She created the company because she saw a problem in her community.  She asked herself Why aren’t people earning the wages they deserve.  She asked herself why so many people in Ethiopia are unemployed and then she decided to try and solve the problem.  Ms. Alemu is a true inspiration of entrepreneurship.

Hearing her story, learning about her dedication to staying true to her business model , and seeing such a strong Ethiopian woman was inspirational to me.  She truly started her dream from scratch.  She built an empire piece by piece, and is now named one of the Top 20 powerful Young African Women in Forbes.  check out the website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/01/05/africas-most-successful-women-bethlehem-tilahun-alemu/

I am writing about her here because I believe as an Ethiopian American Girl I have been inspired and I hope that her work inspires others.  The idea of making something from nothing is something that really can teach us all a lot.  I translate it to mean that it doesn’t matter where you are starting from, it only matters how you use what you have before you to make your life and the life of those around you better.

Ms. Alemu had a special grace about her, and she took time to speak to a group of us after I saw her speak at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  She explained her drive, her dedication to her company, and her belief in helping her employees grow.  She inspired us all to follow our dreams and work hard at it.  She told us to make a plan and follow it closely, and if it doesn’t work regroup and try again.  She was inspiring, motivational, and a great role model.

I’m inspired, I hope you are too!

Sincerely, Ethiopia: A must see Documentary

 

Last week I had the opportunity to go see this documentary.  It is amazing because it brings about a new perspective to how people see Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has a rich culture.  It is full of people coming up with innovative ways to effectuate actual change throughout the country.  It fascinated me even more because the Director and film crew of the documentary all Ethiopian Americans like myself.  

I truly believe that Ethiopian Americans have a unique take on the social and political issues in Ethiopia.  I believe that we have not been tainted by the experience those that left Ethiopia many years ago have.  We look back at the home of our ancestors with love, and the urgency to help.  And if we can’t actually help we are constantly looking for ways to show pride in our cultural background.  

Let me digress=NOT All Ethiopian Americans take such pride and feel the deep need to rewrite the script of Ethiopia, however many of us do.  We proudly say I am Ethiopian, born in America.  We struggle with a dualism and are constantly trying to find our rightful place within our culture (both American and Ethiopian culture).  We take from both cultures and sometimes find our values in conflict. Watching this documentary I realized, its not just me.  We all face these issues, and what better way to figure everything out than to share it through different media forms.  

Check out the link to the trailor for “Sincerely, Ethiopia” and definitely check them out when they come to a city near you 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k34-mCgG070

 

 

Ethiopian American Girl, Esquire

  Two weeks ago I got news that I passed the Maryland Bar Exam.  Years of hard work culminated to this very moment.  It was a plethora of feelings and emotions that I felt upon finding out.  This experience has been humbling.  It has made me dream bigger than I ever thought possible.  I can honestly say I hope I can only be a good example to others.  Especially to my Ethiopian brothers and sisters.  

Everyday growing up we heard our parents tell us, work hard, study hard, one day you will see the fruit of your labor.  As young kids we all likely felt the same feeling.  At least I know I felt it.  That feeling that all you want to do is go out and play, hang out with friends, watch tv.  We don’t realize when we are young how much our parents are actually right.  It takes great sacrifice to get anything you want.  I have had to sacrifice family gatherings, vacations, and nights out with friends.  All this was to reach one final goal.  The fulfillment of my dream as a young girl to become an attorney.  The dream is not over, I will still have to sacrifice in the future, but at the end of the day I know the result will be good.

The dream is not over.  See I have big plans.  The exact path is not determined yet, but I do know one thing I feel something in my heart guiding me and I’m listening.  The values my Ethiopian parents, family and extended relatives instilled in me taught me never to settle, to dream big, and to work hard.  For that reason I still do, I still will.

My advice to those younger than me is this: never lose sight of your dream.  Things may not always work out the way you initially plan, but at the end of the day If you keep your eyes on that final goal you can do it.  Our culture is rich and positive, but the reality is there are plenty of people that doubt your dreams.  So, don’t share all your dreams just pray on it, sleep on it, and work on it.  Anything worth having is not easy, if it were then everyone would have it.  

 

 

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